The death of a loved one can be one of the most painful and stressful events in a person’s life. On top of the grief and heartache, you may be responsible for settling their affairs — from funeral arrangements and settling their estate to finding care for their pets and telling others the news.
If you’ve never been in this position before, you may be unsure what steps to take when someone dies. While the exact steps will depend on your loved one’s circumstances, the checklist below can help ensure you don’t miss anything important.
For a printable version of this list to work through with family and friends, download the checklist.
What things need to be taken care of when someone dies?
There are many things to do when someone dies, from easy tasks like forwarding mail to more complicated ones like transferring assets. Remember — you don’t need to do everything at once, or alone. Some tasks should be completed immediately upon death, while others can begin a few days later. Less urgent tasks can be carried out over the following weeks and months. If you can, delegate responsibilities to family and friends to help alleviate stress and complete tasks faster.
What to do right after someone dies
The list of things to do when someone dies can be long, but some things need to be taken care of more quickly than others. Here are the first things you should do when someone dies.
1. Get a legal death pronouncement
To obtain a death certificate — a crucial document you’ll need to wrap up your loved one’s affairs — you’ll first need an official death pronouncement. If they die in a hospital or nursing home, the staff will take care of this. If your loved one died at home, a medical professional must make the declaration. The best thing to do is to call 911, and they’ll guide you from there. If your loved one was in hospice, their nurse can declare them dead. This step must happen in order to do anything else.
2. Find out if the deceased made after-death plans
Ideally, your loved one made plans for what they’d like to happen after they die, such as pre-paying for a cremation or burial plot. Alternatively, they may have included a letter of instruction with their paperwork, even if they didn’t make an actual arrangement. During this period if you do find their estate planning paperwork (trust or will), you should make sure it gets to the listed successor trustee or executor if it is not you to be dealt with later, which we discuss below. If they haven’t left any formal instructions, you might need to talk to their family and friends to find out if they’d ever had conversations regarding their wishes and proceed from there.
3. Make arrangements for the body
This step will depend on the wishes of your loved one or the decision you make on their behalf. Some people have very specific wishes while others leave it to the discretion of their trusted family or friends. For example, their body may be transferred to a crematorium, funeral home, or medical institution if they were an organ donor or planned to donate their body to science.
4. Arrange care for children and pets
If your loved one was a single parent or both parents died, you’ll need to find their plans for guardianship. You may need to find a temporary caregiver while the guardian is notified or can pick up the children. Arrangements will also need to be made for any pets, such as finding a foster until a permanent home can be arranged.
5. Tell loved ones
One of the hardest things you’ll need to do when someone dies is notifying family and friends of their death. It can help to create lists of immediate family, close friends and extended family, and others who should know, following these general best practices:
- Tell immediate family in person or with a phone call
- Tell close friends and extended family with a phone call or text message
- Tell others who should know in a group text, mailing a letter, or on social media if it’s right for you
In addition, you may ask coworkers, friends, family members, or members of any religious or social groups to which the deceased belonged for help spreading the word appropriately.
6. Tell employer
You should also prioritize calling their employer to let them know about the death. You can also ask about any outstanding paychecks due and inquire about any life insurance the company may offer so you can file a claim. You’ll also want to make plans to pick up any of their personal items from work.
What to do within a few days of someone’s death
Once you’ve handled the tasks that need to be done immediately after a death, it’s time to make arrangements for a memorial, funeral, or celebration of life, among other things. While the next steps will vary from person to person, here is a list of common tasks to do shortly after someone dies.
7. Find end-of-life paperwork
If your loved one did end-of-life planning with organized paperwork, it will make the process quicker and easier. Locate their trust, will, and documents detailing accounts, passwords, and other important information. As you settle the estate, you’ll be referring to these documents often, so take stock of what you have and what may be missing. If the person had a trust, it may be reflected in the deed to their home recorded in the county or city recorder’s office. You can refer to our end-of-life planning checklist to determine other documents you may need to find.
8. Make memorial or funeral arrangements
Your loved one may have talked about or written down their wishes for what they’d like to happen after they die. If not, it’s time to consult with the rest of the family and make decisions. Questions to ask may include:
- Are we going to place an obituary in the local paper or online?
- If so, who’ll write it? Here is an outline of what to include with some examples to get you started.
Burial vs. cremation
- If the deceased was religious, consider their beliefs, traditions, and rituals to follow.
- If we do a burial, where will it be? What type of burial do we want (there are several types)? Should we go with a natural burial or do we want a traditional headstone, and if so, what should we inscribe on it?
- If we do cremation, how do we get the ashes after cremation, and what should we do with them? Should we spread them or make a keepsake with them?
- Will we have a memorial service, funeral, or a celebration of life? Not sure of the difference? This article explains the differences between these services. Again, If the deceased was religious, you’ll want to incorporate their religious beliefs into the service. This article offers guidance on hosting a memorial service at home
- Do we want to host a visitation? This article explains the difference between a visitation and a funeral if you are unsure.
- Should we include a funeral processional in the service?
- What venues will we use? Do we want to host this service at their place of worship, a funeral home, or someplace else, like someone’s home?
- If we’re having an ash-spreading ceremony, where do we want to spread their ashes? This article offers helpful information on spreading ashes outdoors. And don’t forget to check local rules and regulations before spreading ashes outdoors, in the water, or at a public location.
- Who’ll plan the specifics of the event, such as ordering food, inviting guests, and enlisting speakers to give eulogies? If you’re hosting a funeral at a funeral home, you’ll want to consider using a funeral director to help with planning the service.
- What type of music should we include? What readings meant a lot to the deceased? Don’t forget to include any religious readings in the service.
- Who’s going to pay for it? If the deceased is a veteran, they might be eligible to get some of their burial expenses covered or they might receive a discount.
Read more: Can you choose not to have a funeral?
9. Secure property and lock up valuables
If your loved one lived alone, ensure their home and vehicle are securely locked while you figure out what to do with them. Put any valuables like jewelry, cash, or collectibles in a safe or lockbox, or take them home with you to ensure they are safe in case of a break-in.
10. Forward mail and email
Go to the post office or usps.com to have their mail forwarded to you or another trusted party. This will keep their mailbox from overflowing and signaling that the house is empty. Not only that, but looking through their mail can help you find out what banks they have accounts with, which credit cards they used and might have a balance on, or any outstanding loans.
Email is another good way to find out what bills they were paying. It’s also a good idea to monitor their account for any type of important information. Unfortunately, if your loved one didn’t leave you their username and password, you may have trouble accessing their account. Most email providers will not grant access to an account even upon death without a court order. Even with a court order, they may still not comply due to privacy laws. The best thing to do is reach out to the email service provider at the time of death to find out about the current rules.
That being said, you may be able to find your loved one’s password via a password manager, written down near their computer, in a notes app on their phone, or by an educated guess.
What to do within a few weeks of someone’s death
After the deceased has been laid to rest, the work of settling their estate and wrapping up their affairs begins. This process can be fairly quick or take years, and it can be emotionally taxing no matter what the length. It’s important to take good care of your mental health during this time.
11. Get copies of the death certificate
Order at least ten certified copies of the death certificate. You’ll need them to close accounts, transfer ownership of accounts or property, or whenever proof of death is needed. You can order death certificates from the vital statistics office in the state where the person died.
12. Determine what will happen to their assets
Make a list of their assets and determine what will happen to each of these. Will you sell the home and the cars or is someone inheriting these assets? If there is a will, it may specify who is inheriting items or if they should all be sold and the money given to the beneficiary.
Determine what paperwork needs to be completed to transfer ownership or sell these items. If there’s no will, this can get complicated and may require input from family or other loved ones. Some families hire a mediator to help work through difficult conversations like these, if that is an option for you.
13. Start settling the estate
The process of settling an estate depends on the size of the estate and whether or not there is a will and other end-of-life paperwork. While you may not need to do all the things on this list, here are some common tasks involved with settling an estate:
- Find the will and notify the executor, if that’s not you.
- Find and inventory all assets, including financial accounts and tangible items like jewelry or antiques.
- Take the will to your local probate office. If the deceased had a trust, you might be able to avoid probate court, which will make the process faster. Probate ensures that debts are paid and the remaining assets are transferred to the beneficiaries.
- Enlist a trusts and estates attorney. This is optional but can make the process easier and relieve some of the burden.
- Hire a CPA to handle their final tax return and advise you on any inheritance tax issues.
- If they had a financial advisor, arrange to have accounts transferred to the beneficiary.
If the deceased doesn’t have a will, the probate court will use intestate succession to determine who will receive the assets based on local laws. These laws vary from state to state but typically give preference to the surviving spouse or partner, followed by children, then parents, siblings, and extended family members.
Read more: Complete end-of-life planning guide
14. Identify and pay bills
Make a list of bills that still need to be paid in the short term, such as the mortgage, taxes, credit cards, car payments, or any utilities, while you settle the estate. Some bills will be handled by the estate (both assets and debts can be a part of the estate process). For example, if you sell the home or someone inherits it through a will, you would no longer be responsible for the payments. If there is credit card debit, the estate will pay it, and if there is not enough money to cover it, this debit will not be passed on to someone else. This article outlines what happens to your debt when you die so you know how accounts will be paid during the estate process.
Some utilities and insurance will need to be paid until you transfer the home into the new owner’s name or sell it so you’ll want to make sure to keep current on those. Set up auto-pay or calendar reminders for payment due dates and to remind you to cancel the accounts when they are no longer needed.
15. Identify insurance policies
Gather a list of all insurance policies of the deceased. Cancel their health policies, but make sure not to cancel the home or car insurance until those have been sold or transferred to a new owner. Notify the insurance agent of the death and let them know what the plans are for the home or vehicles (will it be sold or is someone inheriting it). If they had insurance for less common things, like a boat, make sure to cancel those when the items are sold or taken over by the new owner.
16. Close credit cards
Close all credit card accounts and destroy the physical cards. If there is a second user on the accounts, keep them open but have the deceased’s name removed from the account and destroy cards with their name on them.
17. Cancel services
Taking the time to cancel services will ensure the companies don’t try to collect on accumulated charges later. In the case where services were auto-charged to a credit or debit card, canceling services prevents charges for things no one is using, and that money can go to the beneficiaries instead (this is also why you should cancel credit cards right away).
Services to cancel could include:
- Cable TV
- Internet provider
- Streaming services
- Gym memberships
- Memberships to professional or social organizations
- Mobile phone carrier
Looking through their mail (physical or email) for bills or payments on their credit or bank statements can help you identify what they regularly pay.
18. Deactivate social media and email accounts
If you don’t have the password to your loved one’s social media accounts, you won’t be able to gain access due to privacy laws. However, some social media companies let you request to “memoralize” an account, keeping it open with a “remembering” label on it so people can still view photos and share memorial tributes to the page. They will also let you delete an account when you submit the proper information.
You may be able to get an email provider to deactivate an account for you, but most email accounts simply get suspended after a certain period of inactivity. Check the rules with the service provider your loved one used.
19. Notify institutions about the death
Once you have the death certificate, you’ll need to start letting various organizations know about the death. This may include:
- How do I notify Social Security of a death? The Social Security Administration website gives you information if they were receiving social security or if you need to apply for survivor benefits.
- If they were a veteran who received benefits, you’ll need to inform Veterans Affairs.
- Banks, financial advisors, and any financial institutions. They will need to see proof of death before releasing funds to the beneficiary.
- Life insurance companies. If they had a life insurance policy through work or on their own, you’ll need to notify the company of the death to make a claim. You’ll also need proof of death to cancel these policies.
- Credit agencies. Send the death certificate to one of the major credit bureaus. You only need to notify one, and they will share the information with the others.
- Department of Motor Vehicles. Removing your loved one from the motor vehicle database helps prevent identity theft and prevents them from receiving license renewal requests and bills.
- Voter registration office. Like above, removing their name from the voter registration database helps prevent fraud.
20. Send thank you notes
At some point, you’ll want to send thank you notes to those who helped you during this challenging time. Perhaps they sent flowers to the funeral, donated in your loved one’s name, delivered meals so you didn’t have to worry about cooking, or were there with a sympathetic ear. Writing thank you notes is more than good etiquette — it’ll help remind you that you have a network of people who love and support you.
21. Allow yourself to grieve
There are many steps to take when someone dies, and this time-consuming process may be so distracting that you don’t feel like you have time to grieve. If the stress of managing everything while you are grieving is weighing on you, you may want to consider grief counseling to help you work through your complicated emotions and allow yourself time and space to process.
Knowing what to do when someone dies may seem overwhelming, but educating yourself ahead of time will remove some of the stress. Also, being patient with yourself and completing the process one task at a time will make it easier. We’re here to help — download our checklist today and give yourself peace of mind that everything will be handled properly.